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Tar Sands Likely Caused Sickness That Forced Families From Homes, Canadian Regulator Says

Karla and Alain’s Labrecque's children, now living happily and healthily in British Columbia after a year of unexplained sickness in Peace River, Alberta. Published with permission of Karla and Alain Labrecque

Karla and Alain’s Labrecque’s children, now living happily and healthily in British Columbia after a year of unexplained sickness in Peace River, Alberta. Published with permission of Karla and Alain Labrecque. CREDIT: StopBaytex.Ca

The six families that abandoned their homes in Peace River, Canada three years ago due to a strange sickness are finally starting to get some answers.

On Monday, a panel from the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) released a report finding that foul odors released from Baytex Energy Corp. tar sands tanks may have been the reason why the families who lived near those tanks experienced fainting, weight loss, gray skin, and strange growths, eventually forcing them to move away. Because of this, the AER told Baytex that it has four months to install pollution-control equipment on its tanks.

“The Panel’s main finding in this section is that odours from heavy oil operations in the Peace River area have the potential to cause some of the symptoms experienced by residents; therefore, these odours should be eliminated,” the AER’s report said.

The news came as some vindication to at least one of those landowners forced to move. Alain Labrecque and his family have been fighting Baytex over its unregulated emissions for years, only to be told by the company that its uncovered, freely venting tar sands tanks were not exceeding health-based limits on emissions in the area surrounding the Labrecques’ home. Baytex has also attempted to keep the Labrecques quiet, offering to buy their abandoned land in exchange for their silence, according to documents obtained in by ClimateProgress in February.

“It’s a relief to have some validation that we’re not making this up,” Alain told ClimateProgress on Tuesday. “We really have a problem.”

The Labrecques began experiencing symptoms in 2010, when Baytex — a company which the Labrecques had a royalty deal with — began a process called Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand, or CHOPS, on their land. CHOPS is a radically different production process than conventional oil drilling, and is designed for the hard-to-extract tar sands — a thick mixture of heavy oil, sand, and water.

The CHOPS process brings up not just the oil, but also the sand and the water. This is why Baytex has tanks, in order to heat the tar sands mixture, letting the oil separate from the sand and water. CHOPS operators are not obligated by current regulations to install odor-reduction or vapor recovery systems, so Baytex largely just vented the oil into the atmosphere.

The Labrecques had previously had royalty deals with other oil companies on its land, but experienced no health problems.

Now, three years after the Labrecques and five other families moved to get away from the odor and subsequent sickness, the AER panel has recommended Baytex reduce its emissions across Peace River because of possible health concerns. It also recommended further studies be conducted to examine possible linkages between hydrocarbon odors and health symptoms, and recommended that Alberta’s health agency “ensure that appropriate avenues exist to link local physicians with specialists in environmental health.”

“Operational changes must be implemented in the area to eliminate venting, reduce flaring and, ultimately, conserve all produced gas where feasible,” the AER panel said.

The panel also said that Baytex’s attempts to study the air quality were inadequate, and recommended the implementation of a “comprehensive and credible” air quality monitoring program for the Peace River area.

“There has been little correlation of the results of air monitoring with the odour events reported by residents in the area,” the panel said. “There has also been a lack of communication of such results to area residents in a clear and understandable manner.”

The panel’s recommendations, however, are not orders set in stone. Now, the full AER board has two weeks to respond to the panel’s recommendations. The recommendations were issued in response to an 10-day hearing in January on the potential impacts of emissions from Baytex and the CHOPS process overall.

It is also not the blanket recommendation that some of the families had hoped for. As the Global News points out, the AER’s report “shies away from a blanket recommendation that odors be completely eliminated, instead suggesting that they be eliminated ‘to the extent possible,’ and that all produced gas should be conserved ‘where feasible.’”

It has been extremely difficult for families like the Labrecques to get answers from Canadian officials regarding whether certain sicknesses are increasing with the current tar sands boom in Alberta. Doctors have been reportedly afraid to talk about their concerns surrounding the health effects of tar sands activity, and have refused to care for residents who have questioned whether their medical problems are connected to emissions.

During the January hearing, Karla Labrecque testified before the AER that her doctor had refused to do a blood test until he had called the local politician. And Dr. John O’Connor — made famous for questioning whether tar sands pollution is causing increased cancer rates in a First Nation community — has been threatened with getting his license taken away by Canadian health officials, allegeding O’Connor was causing “undue alarm” and “engendering a sense of mistrust” in the Canadian government.

Canada’s perceived reluctance to look into the health impacts of the tar sands is just one symptom of what appears to be a much broader national condition, the stages of which were chillingly outlined in a New York Times op-ed by the journalist Jacques Leslie.

“Forget the idea of Canada as dull, responsible and environmentally minded: That is so 20th century,” Leslie writes. “Now it’s a desperado, placing all its chips on a world-be-damned, climate-altering tar sands bet.”

Editorial Notes: We posted the original story about the Labrecque family on Resilience.org here.

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